Sterling silver will tarnish, but these days far less than in the age of coal fires when there were more pollutants in the atmosphere.
Tarnish is simply the oxidisation of the surface layer of the silver. In normal conditions it happens very slowly and if you wear your silver jewellery regularly or store your silver wrapped and away from the circulation of air (such as in a box), that is usually enough to keep it bright. A light tarnish and the lustre of soft polishing can add to the attractiveness of silver.
Before we talk about cleaning silverware and silver jewellery, perhaps it is best to mention those things that silver should be KEPT AWAY FROM. Because there are a few things that will make silver tarnish faster.
- Air. Alright, so it may be a little impractical to wear your jewellery where there isn't any air. However, if you store your silver unused for a prolonged period, simply ensure it is kept in a box and well wrapped in a soft bag or cloth. It doesn't have to be airtight, just as long as it prevents the free flow of air. Tucked up amongst the clothing in a drawer works very well. You can buy special anti-tarnish bags for silverware and cutlery which are also very effective.
- Paper and some cardboard contain small amounts of sulphur from the manufacturing process, so best to use sulphur free tissue or just avoid wrapping in paper or unlined boxes.
- Chlorine bleach. A common ingredient in many household cleaning products. Even the low concentrations of chlorine you may get in a swimming pool can cause problems, but particularly the concentrations you might use for cleaning.
- Rubber and Latex. It's the sulphur used in the processing. So cleaning silver wearing your best pink Marigolds or sealing your wrapped silver with rubber bands may not have the outcome you hoped for.
- Wine and Fruit Juices. Or even the liquid from cut flowers. It's the acid. For this reason fruit should not be kept for any prolonged time in silver bowls
- Salt. Salt on the table. Salt left from perspiration. Salt in a dishwasher. Salt in the sea. If your silver gets anything salty on it, give it a rinse and a dry asap. Don't leave it overnight.
- A soft, lint free cloth is an effective and inexpensive way to keep your silver pieces lustrous and shining.
- Wool. Specifically untreated wool with natural lanolins (a silver chain over a normal wool jumper isn't a problem). Which is probably why sheep don't wear silver earrings.
Cleaning & polishing sterling silver jewellery & silverware
Speaking as someone who has cleaned more than his fair share of silver, here are my tips. If you have silver jewellery, simply wearing it regularly will keep it tarnish free.
- Warm water with detergent and a good thorough dry.
- Elbow grease. Even so, if you have a good cloth not much is required. Invest in a couple of good silver cleaning cloths.
- Cloths. The softer the better. Sometimes I even use cotton wool balls if the surfaces are flat and cotton buds for the fiddly bits.
- Apply silver polish in straight lines, not circular motions.
- You don't know the precise alloy used in your silver so we would recommend avoiding amateur chemistry experiments.
- Use a silver polish such as Silvo or Haggerty's etc. NOT a polish for Chrome or Brass.
- Shake well, apply with soft cloth, leave to dry. polish off. Easy.
- Nooks and Crannies. No, not a paperclip or match stem. A cotton wool bud, yes. A very soft toothbrush, well OK.
- Rinsing under the tap? Well, I do. Gets rid of the residue and the trick is to get the item absolutely dry afterwards.
Heavier Tarnish & Scratches;
- Silver Dip. We use this, but only in extremis. It consumes the surface layer, so what comes out clean may not come out shiny. Terrible stuff really and we normally have to repolish the whole item, so only if you must and with great care. If we've used dip we rinse the item thoroughly. Remember, it only needs a few seconds in the dip and you need to remove ALL the residue.
- Toothpaste. We've tried this and it comes with a health warning for your silver. Most toothpaste contains either cerium or baking soda. Both are a very, very fine abrasive. It can take out minor scratches as well as leaving your silver with a fresh minty taste. Cerium powder (which you can buy from hardware stores) will also take fine scratches out of glass, but if you can feel the scratch with a fingernail, it's probably too bad to polish out by hand. Our experience is that it leaves a dull finish which then needs going over with a long term silver polish.
- Silver Cleaning Wadding. I mention this with hesitation because I have ruined more pieces of silver with this material than anything else. It is far too severe for normal cleaning and is packed with chemicals and abrasives. It is an item if last resort. It will remove most scratches and marks from silver - and again, probably requires a final polish with something gentler.
Do's and Don'ts
- Always take your Sterling Silver jewellery off before applying suntan lotion, skin creams, and swimming in chlorinated or salt water.
- Never wear your jewellery when working with detergents, bleaches, ammonia or alcohols; these chemicals will cause discolouration and might damage or loosen any gemstones.
- Avoid using an ultrasonic cleaner, ammonia or any chemical solution to clean opaque gemstones, such as turquoise, malachite, onyx, lapis lazuli and opals. They can be porous stones and may absorb chemicals, which build up inside the stone and cause discolouration. Simply wipe them gently with a moist soft cloth until clean.
Rhodium Plating & Flash Plating
BEWARE rhodium and flash plated silver. As a means of either adding a tarnish resistant surface to sterling silver jewellery or achieving a very bright surface finish, some silver is flash electro coated with a thin layer of pure silver or rhodium. It looks nice, but being a mere whisper thick a good rub with silver polish will remove it - and once you've polished it off one area, you notice a difference that was previously invisible and have to do it all. So don't forget, if you think your silver jewellery is Rhodium plated, Clean it with a soft polishing cloth or fine cleaner, but never use chemical or abrasive based Silver cleaners because this will remove the surface coat of rhodium.